Magazine article The New Yorker

Team Spirit

Magazine article The New Yorker

Team Spirit

Article excerpt


--Adam Gopnik

The bizarre American genius for making major events out of meta-events--the pre-Oscar broadcast; the before-the-debate spin on the after-the-debate spinning--includes our sports, where in some ways it first began. The N.F.L. draft, arriving this week, has become a spectacle of its own, with "draftniks," day-long previews, and winners and losers announced before the draftees are. The stories of those who might get picked--this year, for the first time, they include an openly gay player, the University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam--often overshadow the stories of how the players already picked are playing.

The N.F.L. draft is also the moment on the calendar when the intersection of college sports and capitalism comes into clearest focus, and this year brings into view a couple of timely, overlapping crises: one of health care, the other of inequality. The first lies in our growing awareness that football played at any level of competition puts players' bodies and brains at real long-term risk. (The problem isn't unique to football; hockey, lacrosse, and even soccer produce head injuries at about the same rate, but football depends on collisions in ways that the other sports do not, at least not so entirely.) There is a growing sense that watching football is really watching bright young men turn themselves into broken old ones. President Obama's remark that he would have to think long and hard before letting a son of his play football may be one of those small social markers which loom large in retrospect. As Jack Kennedy to hats, so Obama to helmets: Presidents can make once accepted elements of life look suddenly dated.

These crises are added to by others--the slow-footed investigation of a rape allegedly committed by a Heisman Trophy winner; academic departments that offer non-courses to student athletes who may not even be fully literate--and all of them point to the same thing: that the ideal of the "student-athlete," long crumbling, is now pretty much in rubble. A regional National Labor Relations Board has ruled, in what many expect to be a precedent-setting decision, that student-athletes at Northwestern University can begin to unionize. The rationale for the players' demands, which include concussion-testing, extended medical coverage, and more manageable practice schedules, is based on a real inequity. Football makes lots of money for schools--Northwestern says that between 2003 and 2012 it made two hundred and thirty-five million dollars in football revenue, including lucrative TV deals--and the thought is that those who create the value ought to share in it, particularly since a sports scholarship, instead of being a guarantee of four years of free education, often lasts only as long as a player is producing. The union vote is a subset, in turn, of a larger, much talked-of move to pay student players to play sports. This, too, sounds reasonable. Nick Saban, the head coach at the University of Alabama, makes around seven million dollars a season; shouldn't those who do the work share the wealth?

Yet, sympathetic as these ideas seem at first look, they become dubious at a longer one. They all tend to redefine a set of students as a class of employees, ending the pretense that they are anything else, perhaps, but also pointing out why that pretense has always been such a lousy one to perpetuate. …

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